Meara, Of the NEWS Staff e-mail
Monday, November 17, 2003
behind the backwoods 'good life'
DOOR TO THE GOOD LIFE, by Jean Hay Bright,
Press, Dixmont, Maine, 2003, $20.
When I came to Maine in 1970, everyone I met talked about buying some
land, homesteading and leaving the consumer economy behind. Most of us
never had the money to buy a decent car, let alone any land. We all read
the back-to-the-earth bible, "Living The Good Life" by Helen and Scott
Nearing, the model of successful homesteading.
Jean Hay Bright did a lot more than talk about homesteading. She
actually visited the Nearings (with the book in the car) and,
astonishingly, the Nearings offered to sell Hay and her husband 30 acres
next to their farm. The Hays actually fashioned a good home and life out
of the Maine woods, but never quite measured up to the Nearings, their
idols. It was only after the Nearings' deaths that Hay investigated and
found out that the couple were (at least comparatively) quite well off
and were able to live "the good life" with the help of trust funds,
insurance policies and other windfalls, which were curiously omitted
from their writings and lectures.
Bright has chronicled these adventures (and misadventures) in
"Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life." Personally, I found the book to
be terribly long on details of every can of beans packed during the
homesteading years and woefully short on the details of Bright's
Perhaps because she was so used to doing without money, Hay ran on a
shoestring against Olympia Snowe for the House in 1994. When George Mitchell bowed out
of the political life, Snowe left the representatives' race and a
candidate named John Baldacci emerged to beat Hay in the four-way primary and win
the seat vacated by Snowe.
Keith and Jean Hay came to Maine around New Year's in 1971 with a
whopping (for the time) $7,000 in savings. They found a possible site in
Stetson, but decided on a whim to visit the legendary Nearings before
they signed anything. Anyone remotely interested in homesteading has
read the Nearings' "Living The Good Life," first published in 1954.
Scott Nearing had objected to World War I, which gave him legendary
credentials in the anti-Vietnam crowd. He was the 1970s poetic version
of Paul Bunyan to many young people. Supposedly the Nearings had
purchased land in Vermont for $300, cut their own firewood, made maple
syrup for a cash crop and lived "the good life" before moving to Maine.
Every year thousands of pilgrims came to the Hancock County village of
Harborside arriving "by thumb or Volkswagen van to touch the hems of the
Nearing robes, to pick up on their magic," Bright wrote.
In their VW bus (naturally), Jean and Keith visited the Nearing farm.
While Keith chopped wood with Scott, 88, Jean drank tea with Helen, 69,
in the famous farmhouse. On their return visit to the farm, the Nearings
offered to sell them 30 acres of their land for $2,000. Her neighbor on
the other side was the young Eliot Coleman, who would later write the
highly popular books "The New Organic Grower" and "Four Season Harvest."
This was a chance of a lifetime, to get back to the land on a plot next
to the guru of homesteading. Of all the thousands of people who made
pilgrimages to the Nearing farm, Keith and Jean had been anointed as
acceptable neighbors. They never, ever, learned why.
To all of us who dreamed of homesteading and never did, the construction
details in "Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life" are fascinating. But
the almost daily chronicle of gardening and canning is a bit excessive.
But Bright held out for a few creature comforts. When she made the trek
to the outhouse, she brought along toilet paper not the "freshly
gathered sphagnum moss," which the neighbors used and recommended.
After two children were born and raised in backwoods conditions, the
"good life" took a toll on the marriage. In July, 1978, the couple
decided to divorce. Bright relates she lost her husband to a woman with
a trust fund, which was used to buy out her share of the homestead.
Bright took a job with the Bangor Daily News and, sadly, had to write
the obituaries of both Helen and Scott Nearing. The obituaries are
published in full in the book.
Only after their deaths did Hay fully realize that the Nearings were
trust-funders, whose income allowed the Nearings to live their "good
life" with such ease.
"It is much easier to be philosophical, dogmatic, eccentric or even
radical, when you don't have to worry where your next dollar is coming
from," Bright said after learning the financial details. One relative
estimated that Nearing's inheritance was at least $1 million, in 1940!
Helen Nearing also received a trust fund. [Author's note: The
reviewer misread this section of the book. Scott's father left an estate
estimated at $1 million, which was split among Scott and his five
siblings. Scott's share was therefore into six figures, but not within
shooting distance of a cool million.]
Bright concludes, "It is not that it's impossible to live the
homesteading part of the good life the way the Nearings recommended. We
did it and so did hundreds of other young idealists. But now I know why
our version of the 'good life' didn't match the pictures in the book."
In conclusion, she writes, "I do have sympathy for people who believe
everything they read in a book and then go out and try to live their
lives by it."
Emmet Meara is a regular contributor to the Style section. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life"
is available in local bookstores or directly from BrightBerry Press,
4262 Kennebec Rd., Dixmont, ME. 04932. Visit brightberrypress.com